On Friday, Apple - a company increasingly implicated in all tech-centric aspects of our lives - launched Apple TV+ in over 100 countries, including Australia.
The service boasts a line-up of prestige television including the wildly ahistorical Dickinson (what if 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson spoke with the cadence of a YouTube personality?) and the wildly glossy Morning Wars (what if The West Wing had significantly lower stakes?), a show about morning television that reportedly somehow cost $15 million per episode.
On November 19, a week after its US launch, Australians will get access to Disney+, which includes films and TV series from the Star Wars and Marvel franchises, along with the entirety of The Simpsons and a slate of Disney films, many of which you will have heard of, and numerous others that sound like they were fabricated as background gags for a lesser Saturday Night Live sketch (The Apple Dumpling Gang, Candleshoe, The Barefoot Executive).
There has been speculation that Australian competitor Stan will try to strike a deal with Disney+ so it can continue to carry Disney and Marvel properties, in order to keep itself from being edged out of the market.
In May next year, HBO intends to introduce HBO Max (the Australian availability of which is rumoured but not yet confirmed), with plans for 50 original films and TV series by 2021.
Each of these corporate titans is spending billions of dollars that will, best-case scenario, take years to recoup.
The exemplar of this streaming strategy, where a fortune is spent in an attempt to monopolise a market and demolish competition is, of course, Netflix, which invested around $12 billion in original content in 2018 and in October announced plans to raise $2 billion in debt to fund more; it did the same in April.
As these enterprises expand and compete, the way in which we discover and consume film and television will continue to change at such speed that it's difficult to get a clear view of the impending consequences, of what this transformation will mean for the kind of art that is made, and the kind of art that gets left behind.
As we embrace the convenience, cheapness (likely temporary) and shine of these services, it's important not to lose sight of what's being relinquished. Streaming is already replacing material ownership of film, music, and television, and we're at risk of handing over control of cultural history, and the cultural present, to a small group of generalist companies motivated entirely by shareholder interests and profit.
Netflix is already infamous for privileging the recent over the classic, and it's in the interests of every streaming service to promote their original content (the only content they can be guaranteed to maintain) above all else, capitalising on the kind of social media buzz that depends on the novelty of the fresh, hyped by media outlets racing to publish recaps and the quickfire creation of viral-ready gifs.
As the rich history of cinema, in particular, is evermore obscured by difficulty of access, it's in danger of being replaced by art that motivates its audience's desire to not be left out of the conversation, rather than a desire for the object itself.
And services can always be shut down, leaving the viewer, who was only ever renting the library, with nothing but memories of streamed shows past. Given the continuing unprofitability of businesses like Netflix, such a scenario does not seem especially unlikely.
Moreover, it's not just a matter of which shows are available, but how they're curated and delivered. Streaming algorithms tend to aggravate inequality, creating a market that's only ever interested in the latest, most talked-about TV event. This is not restricted to video streaming. On Spotify, for example, the top 10 per cent of artists constitute 99 per cent of the music streamed.
Algorithms also determine how scripts are written. In 2018, Netflix released Maniac, a 10-episode drama starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, and directed by Cary Fukanaga (director of the first season of True Detective and the next James Bond film). Fukanaga, in an interview with GQ, described the process of working with Netflix as having to contend with the authority of the algorithm. One script was canned because the algorithm determined its complex structure would lose the show viewers, halting their binge-watching momentum.
"It was an amazing exercise," Fukanaga said. "It will be even more amazing to see people's reaction to the show. I have no doubt the algorithm will be right."
As with many Netflix originals, Maniac, a show starring two household names and helmed by a prestige director, had little cultural impact.
Television and film have always been governed by commercial interests, and the conditions of the market have always influenced artistic practice. However, these engines of profit have never been so motivated to dull their customers' senses, doing just enough to keep them watching, but rarely more.
The ideal subscriber need only be just inclined enough to not cancel their subscription, so companies like Netflix need only to discourage a negative action, which is far easier than encouraging a positive one.
This incentivises familiarity and safety. We're seeing so many reboots because the logic of entertainment is now a logic of comfort, rather than a logic of shock or invention.
I will admit, however, to excitement for The Mandalorian, the first live-action Star Wars TV series, set to premiere on Disney+. The trailer evokes the best of the original film trilogy, among the most important cultural touchstones of my childhood.
It will take me back.
- Dan Dixon is a writer who teaches at the University of Sydney. He writes about literature, culture, politics, and America.